Ecuador

One of my favorite things about being a blogger is getting to re-live the foods, meals, restaurants, and experiences as I’m writing about them.  Sometimes it takes me a few weeks to blog about a new recipe I’ve made.  By the time I’m writing about it, I’m craving it again!  This is one of those moments.
 
I couldn’t be happier <finally> writing about our trip to Ecuador right now.  I’m sitting in our room with the windows open, warm and tucked under my blanket, football is on, my dog is snoozing in her bed a few inches away, and most of all… I’m clean!  I am showered and clean.  I am seriously enjoying the re-living of our Ecuador experience in quite a different situation than the actual first time.  
 
Don’t get me wrong.  I’m about to blow you away with some pretty gorgeous pictures of waterfalls and the jungle… but this trip of ours was just a little bit too close to “roughing” it for this princess.  It was certainly an adventure!  
Let me start off by telling you about our flights.  We were to arrive in Quito, the capital of Ecuador around midnight (cue the South American Capital song that only JUST got out of my head) via Philly > Dallas > El Salvador.  It was a total of 13 hours.  Not so bad?  After a long cab ride, we arrived in the Mariscal area or the “New City” and made our way to our first hostel.
ecuador world
Have I mentioned yet that we literally “backpacked”?  Like, we each had a back pack.  And that’s it.  Packing was a nightmare.  OMG!
Our first hostel, Kingdom Kichwa, we actually ended up staying overnight three different times throughout the trip.  We like to think it was our home base in Quito.  The owners were very nice and helpful.  After our first night’s sleep in our private room, we indulged in an amazing breakfast at the hostel.  *I picked this hostel, solely on the reason that in one of the reviews I heard they make their own cheese.  Not kidding* One of the owners, Chasky, had prepared an entire pitcher of FRESH fruit juice, a pot of coffee, fruit, warmed croissants, jam, and to top it all off- homemade butter and A WHEEL of cheese.  We were both in heaven.  And to think- we have TWO MORE breakfasts at this place!! I was “cheesin'”!
That's cheese!  One of the owners of Kingdom Kichwa (Luis)'s family owns a dairy farm in the Andes.  They make their own yogurt, cheese, and butter.

That’s cheese! One of the owners of Kingdom Kichwa (Luis)’s family owns a dairy farm in the Andes. They make their own yogurt, cheese, and butter.

The fruit juice was out of this world.  He used a different mix every day.  Craving it now!

The fruit juice was out of this world. He used a different mix every day. Craving it now!

We spent the day exploring Quito, first to the market in the New City area to shop around and then to the Old City area to see beautiful Spanish colonial style architecture, churches, and lots of gorgeous views.  For $.35 we got to try a traditional food of Quito called Llapingachos: thick pancake-like corn cakes stuffed with cheese.  They are so delicious!  We devoured the one we bought to share as we walked around the city.
Mercado Artesenal La Mariscal- there were about 10 aisles this long with tons of crafts.

Mercado Artesenal La Mariscal- there were about 10 aisles this long with tons of crafts.

We got to go inside a beautiful church in Plaza Grande in old city Quito

We got to go inside a beautiful church in Plaza Grande in old city Quito

The city was beautiful and the backdrop of mountains made it even better.

The city was beautiful and the backdrop of mountains made it even better.

YUM!  The cheese inside was similar to feta- not stringy and just a tad salty.  These pancakes were crispy on the outside and piping hot!

YUM! The cheese inside was similar to feta- not stringy and just a tad salty. These pancakes were crispy on the outside and piping hot!

A massive and gorgeous church.

A massive and gorgeous church.

Before we knew it, it was time to go back to the hostel to get picked up to go to our next destination.  But first, we ate a really yummy lunch at a classy cafe a couple stores down called Fried Bananas.  Dave ordered a Saffron Cream Pasta with Chicken and I got Ecuadorian style Rice with Shrimp.  The best part?  Each entree was not only amazing, but they were both only $5.60!

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Time for a great side-note.  Ecuador uses American dollars.  Weird, right?  This made our lives a lot easier!  Food is VERY inexpensive too.  Which is awesome.

After lunch, we were picked up by a driver to go to our next hostel in Riobamba.  The four hour drive took us to a hostel in Riobamba where we would sleep overnight in preparation for our big hike in the Andes.  Little did we know coming into this situation that Riobamba is certainly a “developing” area.  It was very run down and there were stray dogs everywhere.  We were only comfortable walking to the end of our block to get a bag of Doritos for dinner.  I was then kept up all night hearing them outside fighting one another :(  … traumatizing!

One of the doggies that lived at our hostel.  She slept outside- I was worried about her all night! (obviously)

One of the doggies that lived at our hostel. She slept outside- I was worried about her all night! (obviously)

Loved this picture of the American flag in our cab in the middle of Ecuador.

Loved this picture of the American flag in our cab in the middle of Ecuador.

Waking up early the next day was exciting.  We were ready for our big hike!  The hike was to be two full days:  one 5-6 hour hiking day to a base camp, and the other day up the El Altar volcano and back.  We had our very own guide and a mule to carry our bags.  We had no idea what we signed ourselves up for.  When we were given rain boots and told to wear them instead of our brand new hiking boots… I should have figured it out.  About 95% of the trail to the base camp consisted of three foot deep clay-like mud.  The. Entire. Way.

I thought my biggest problem was my borrowed (ew) boots being too big as I would take one step and try to get out of the mud, only to have the boot stay in the mud and my foot come flying out.  Every. Step. I. Would. Take.  It only took about fifteen minutes for me to realize what my real issue would soon become:  the altitude.  For those of you who are following- I am in pretty decent shape.  I work out a ton and I ran in the Broad Street 10-Mile Race only a month prior.  I should be okay with this.  Except I wasn’t.  I became very sick very soon after we started our hike up the mountain.  Stabbing headache behind my ears, nausea, dizziness… not good.  The guide had to drag me for about an hour of the trek.

In and out of the mud, we made it to a clearing for lunch.  Once I took a rest and ate a bit, I started to feel better.  The rest of the way was by no means easy, but working together and deciding to stop for rest breaks more often, we made it to the base camp.  It was just beautiful.  Breathtaking.  Only one problem-  it was seriously 40 degrees.  Probably less.  Once we arrived, our tour guide got to work immediately making us TWO whole pots of hot tea and a surprisingly delicious hot dinner.  We met an older married Canadian (eh?!) couple who was also staying there and let me borrow a down jacket.  We went to bed at sunset (6pm) in about seven layers and a sleeping bag.

A quick pic after our lunch break (mid-hike)

A quick pic after our lunch break (mid-hike)

This is what most of the hike looked like , just beautiful!

This is what most of the hike looked like , just beautiful!

Finally arrived at the lodge.

Finally arrived at the lodge.

More tea and our HOT delicious dinner made by our guide.

More tea and our HOT delicious dinner made by our guide.

Happy to not be hiking anymore, but FREEZING!

Happy to not be hiking anymore, but FREEZING!

Dave looking a little better than me at this point!

Dave looking a little better than me at this point!

A panoramic of our view.  Even though we were FREEZING, sleeping in a cabin with this view was spectacular.  The hike to the lagoon at El Altar is to the left where the snow is!

A panoramic of our view. Even though we were FREEZING, sleeping in a cabin with this view was spectacular. The hike to the lagoon at El Altar is to the left where the snow is!

Dave made it to the lagoon at El Altar just in time for sunrise.  GORGEOUS!

Dave made it to the lagoon at El Altar just in time for sunrise. GORGEOUS!

It had been decided after the first part of the hike by our guide that he did not want me to do the climb to the volcano.  Of course we were disappointed but neither of us wanted to risk the altitude sickness again.  Dave left the following morning at around 4:30am to do the hike with the guide.  Turns out it was a very quick hike, but STRAIGHT up the volcano.  Dave was very happy I wasn’t there since my fear of heights would have totally gotten the best of me.  Instead, I spent the morning with our nice Canadian friends and my kindle.  I was still freezing but a very happy girl.  Dave and our guide came back and shared pictures while we ate breakfast and got ready for our muddy way back.  Downhill is always easier.

There was never any down time on our trip and our post-hike was nothing different.  Arriving back in Riobamba, we caught the first bus possible to our next destination:  Banos.  One of the many vacation spots for the locals with spas, hot springs, waterfalls, and good bars.  That’s something I can agree with at this point.  Our hostel in Banos was called Hostal Transilvania and is owned by Israelis.  *I picked this hostel on the advice of a review who talked about their cute puppy.  Again, not kidding.*

Some love from our Hostel Puppy!

Some love from our Hostel Puppy!

Arriving at night, we had a great dinner at a Mexican restaurant and got to bed early.  The next day was one of our busiest!  We woke up early and went white water rafting AND Dave did some canyoning (repelling down waterfalls with cables).  Although I’m always really nervous at first, I LOVE white water rafting!  The water we rafted in this time was really gross and dirty compared to the pristine glacier water when we rafted in Whistler… but it was still so much fun.  I wasn’t brave enough to try canyoning but Dave loved it!  After a dinner with some friends we met along the way, we relaxed and treated our aching muscles in the natural mineral hot springs.

Just a market in town... no big deal :)

Just a market in town… no big deal :)

This is what the streets of Banos looks like

This is what the streets of Banos looks like

Our last day in Banos started with a $20 for an HOUR massage- what a deal!  We also got to explore, walking through the city and going on a path where you can see the entire town from afar.  Dave also remembered my friend Melanie suggesting that we find the Pailon del Diablo Falls- a massive waterfall just outside Banos.  The falls were absolutely amazing!  We were soaking wet just from standing nearby for a few minutes.

This is a view looking at the city of Banos.  So many waterfalls... gorgeous!

This is a view looking at the city of Banos. So many waterfalls… gorgeous!

Pailon del Diablo falls was unreal.  The power of the water was just breathtaking.

Pailon del Diablo falls was unreal. The power of the water was just breathtaking.

A different view of the falls

A different view of the falls

Next up on the trip is our adventure in the Amazon Jungle, but first… we got to spend another evening at our favorite hostel- Kingdom Kichwa in Quito.  (More fruit juice and cheese!!)

The best part about getting to our Amazon adventure was the transportation.  Get ready:  First we were picked up in the morning by a taxi and were driven to the airport.  We then took a 1-hour flight to Lago Agrio- another area of Ecuador.  From there, we were picked up and driven by a small bus for two hours to the entrance of the Cuyabano Reserve park.  There we ate a hot lunch and were then taken on another two-hour ride, this time on a motorized canoe!  We saw so many animals along the way- it was so amazing!  The best thing we saw on the way in was a group of about 60 monkeys crossing the river by jumping from one tree and flying across the river to the next.  Every single monkey did it… it was so funny!  Even one fell in the water (he was okay!).

Gorgeous butterflies waiting for us to leave on the canoe

Gorgeous butterflies waiting for us to leave on the canoe

We're on a boat!

We’re on a boat!

Can you see the monkey!? :)

Can you see the monkey!? :)

We arrived at the Sionna Lodge which is situated just off of the Laguna Grande (big lake) in the Amazon Basin.  The entire area is just a flooded forest that dries up during the dry season.  It was amazing how it looked like trees were growing out of the water!  We spent 3 nights and 4 days at the lodge with some very interesting and fun people.  Luis, our guide was so knowledgeable.  He was with the group day in and day out for the entire trip.  He knew absolutely everything about every species of animal and plant- from their mating calls, average weight, colors, diets, lifespan, and even down to their scientific name.
Our hut- actually my favorite of all of our accommodations!  Screened in with lots of fresh air, mosquito nets, really nice bathroom, and our very own hammock on the back deck!

Our hut- actually my favorite of all of our accommodations! Screened in with lots of fresh air, mosquito nets, really nice bathroom, and our very own hammock on the back deck!

We had the most amazing tour guide- Luis.  This is the Wandering Brazilian Banana Spider I was telling you about!

We had the most amazing tour guide- Luis. This is the Wandering Brazilian Banana Spider I was telling you about!

During our stay at the Sionna Lodge we had several motorized canoe rides throughout the laguna and the jungle where we were able to observe tons of wildlife.  We saw so many monkeys (SO MANY MONKEYS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!), birds, butterflies, fish, dolphins, anacondas, insects, and even cayman (like an alligator or crocodile!).  We went on night walks where the only light in the jungle came from our headlamps.  We also took a sunrise boat ride and got to see the beautiful scene unfold over the laguna grande.  We went on a two hour ride even further into the jungle to see a native Shaman and a community where we got to learn how to make Cassava from yucca that we pulled out of the ground.  I could go on and on… this part of the trip was truly amazing, and my favorite for sure.
One of my favorite pics of our first night there.  Just before a storm.

One of my favorite pics of our first night there. Just before a storm.

Just one of the sights as seen on our night hike in the jungle.  SCARY!

Just one of the sights as seen on our night hike in the jungle. SCARY!

Gorgeous!

Gorgeous!

Shaman!

Shaman!

Peeling some Yucca

Peeling some Yucca

Making some Cassava- yucca flour pancakes

Making some Cassava- yucca flour pancakes

We got to try a few pieces of Cassava with some VERY hot chili sauce!

We got to try a few pieces of Cassava with some VERY hot chili sauce!

Sunset

Sunset

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Our jungle day walk- check out that tree!

Our jungle day walk- check out that tree!

Luis looking for wildlife- he could literally see the smallest camoflauged animal from 100+ yards away.  He knew everything about every species- unbelievable!

Luis looking for wildlife- he could literally see the smallest camoflauged animal from 100+ yards away. He knew everything about every species- unbelievable!

Back at the lodge, not only did we have comfortable, clean accommodations, but we had our very own chefs!  The group ate delicious, hot meals three times a day.  The food was outstanding.  I was in shock.  I wasn’t at all expecting to have such great food all the way out in the jungle.  We even got the chef to share his recipe for Aji- the hot sauce we fell in love with that is served with most food in Ecuador.
This was one of my favorite spots- the reading room!

This was one of my favorite spots- the reading room!

We were given a handwritten recipe for Aji- the Columbian hot sauce that we fell in love with.

We were given a handwritten recipe for Aji- the Columbian hot sauce that we fell in love with.

After our dream trip to the Amazon was done- we canoed, drove, and flew and drove back to our home base in Quito- the good ole Kingdom Kichwa!  On our final day in Ecuador, we spent some time walking around the old city of Quito.  We also had to take the opportunity for some last minute gorgeous photos at a lookout point- a cable car ride and 13,000+ feet above sea level!  The view was spectacular.  You could see the entire sprawling city, the mountains, and beautiful landscape.

Quito

Quito

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Enjoying some 5 cent Ice Cream on the street :)

Enjoying some 5 cent Ice Cream on the street :)

Loving this adorable city!

Loving this adorable city!

The view from the lookout point.  That's only a portion of it too... the city just goes on forever!

The view from the lookout point. That’s only a portion of it too… the city just goes on forever!

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After we came back down from the lookout point, it was pretty much time to get going to the airport.  What an adventure!  I was sad to go but happy to come back home and not wear these clothes for a very long time!!

If you are planning a trip or have any questions, feel free to contact us!  We loved Ecuador in so many different ways and definitely recommend it to anyone trying to go on a really fun and affordable adventure vacation.  Now the important question to leave you with here is… where should we go next?!??

 

Seattle, WA

It has been so long that I’ve been able to write about one of our fabulous adventures because we HAVEN’T BEEN ON ONE IN OVER A YEAR!  Dave and I finally saved up some time and money and went away together for the first time since LA last December.  What a nice and much overdue treat.

Why Seattle for such a short trip?  Dave’s new job has him traveling quite a bit in the next few months.  His first business trip this season was scheduled for Seattle on a Friday morning.  Friday morning… how perfect.  We decided to make a vacation out of it, especially since Seattle is just a train ride away from his family in Vancouver.

My adventure started at 4:00 AM on Friday.  EW.  I had to catch a bus at 4:30 to catch another bus to the airport for my flight out of Philly at 7am.  All went well and after a VERY LONG day on airplanes (I finished reading Paterno -loved- and started -and finished… and also loved)  Gone Girl- I arrived  in Seattle at 3pm.  I met Dave who had already finished up working for the day at our amazing hotel, the Edgewater.

The Edgewater is a waterfront hotel that was made famous by this picture of the Beatles fishing outside their room in 1964…

"Fab Fishing" Photo Cred: BeatlesInterviews.org

“Fab Fishing” Photo Cred: BeatlesInterviews.org

…and more recently, was featured on “The Layover” with my all time favorite foodie Anthony Bourdain!

#OMGWeStayedAtTheSameHotel!!!??!? Photo Cred: HotelChatter.com

#OMGWeStayedAtTheSameHotel!!!??!?
Photo Cred: HotelChatter.com

Dave and I had a room with a balcony overlooking Elliott Bay, with a fancy bathroom, fireplace, and even this little guy to keep us company (they sell them in the store… I WANT ONE!! duh).

Loved our friend in our room!  So cute

Loved our friend in our room! So cute

The view from the lobby.  Just amazing.

The view from the lobby. Just amazing.

We dropped off my luggage and got started with some sightseeing right away… we had to take advantage of what ended up being the clearest, nicest day during our time in Seattle!

We walked down the pier and took a ride on The Seattle Great Wheel which provided a beautiful view of the city.

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Dave on the Ferris Wheel

Dave on the Ferris Wheel

Pretty view from the ferris wheel

Pretty view from the ferris wheel

Next, we decided we were going to walk through the city to the Space Needle.  The quick ride in the elevator brought us up to the observation deck which gave us a 360 degree view of the city… 520 feet in the air.  OMG!  The scenery was beautiful and this was the only day we could see the towering snow-covered Mt. Rainier.  I was awestruck by this mountain… I could not believe how big and gorgeous it was.

Space Needle!

Space Needle!

GORGEOUS view of Mt. Rainier from the Space Needle.

GORGEOUS view of Mt. Rainier from the Space Needle.

After the space needle, we made a pit-stop at the Pike Place Market.  You got it… the place where they throw the fish :)

We munched on some smoked cheeese “trail mix” (YUM) and walked around to check out all of the fresh fish.  We ended up grabbing a small bite to eat at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese store… wow!  We had a few samples, tried out a fancy grilled cheese, and munched on their famous Cheese Curds.

Lobster!

Lobster!

I wish I could have gone shopping at the market!  Check out the size of that shrimp...

I wish I could have gone shopping at the market! Check out the size of that shrimp…

Smoked Cheese Sticks & "Trail Mix" ... nom nom

Smoked Cheese Sticks & “Trail Mix” … nom nom

 

 

 

 

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Fiiiiish

Fiiiiish

Rows and rows of fresh flowers

Rows and rows of fresh flowers

As if our day wasn’t already jam-packed enough, we then headed over to Safeco Field to watch the Seattle Mariners get crushed by the Angels.  We had such a fun time and tried some local favorites suggested by my friend Heather… Grounder’s Garlic Fries (OMG GARLICC!), Cheddar/Caramel Popcorn (I didn’t let Dave open this until we got back to the hotel for a midnight snack!), and later on, a Seattle Dog (Cream Cheese… whaaaaat?!).  We didn’t realize until we left, but at the ballpark in Seattle unlike in Philadelphia, you can leave the stadium and come back in!  I love it!  They have lots of shops and food vendors lined up outside the stadium so I imagine this would have been really cool to do.  Nice touch, Seattle.

Go Mariners!

Go Mariners!

Devoured this Cheddar-Caramel Corn ... yum!

Devoured this Cheddar-Caramel Corn … yum!

Pretty view from the ballpark.

Pretty view from the ballpark.

YUM!  Garlic fries!  We both agreed that Philly's Famous Crab Fries from Chickie and Pete's is better though :)

YUM! Garlic fries! We both agreed that Philly’s Famous Crab Fries from Chickie and Pete’s is better though :)

Enjoying the baseball game

Enjoying the baseball game

Next, we walked back to our hotel, stopping at a few bars along the way.  We dropped by a place that looked pretty cool called 1000 Spirits.  This would be the first of THREE times we’d visit this cocktail bar during our short stay in the city.  Dave and I loved this place!  With $5 martinis, two different happy hour times, a Happy Hour Wheel, and free drinks with a #1000Spirits tweet… we ended up having six delicious cocktails and an appetizer for only $24.  WOW!

Cocktail bar!  Got Dave into Dirty Martinis... mmm!

Cocktail bar! Got Dave into Dirty Martinis… mmm!

This is only about 1/3 of the bar!  OMG.

This is only about 1/3 of the bar! OMG.

Delicious cod cake.  Only $5 during Happy Hr.

Delicious cod cake. Only $5 during Happy Hr.

The next day, we had until our 6pm train to Vancouver to explore the city.  It was a little bit on the chilly side this day, so we decided to hit up the EMP Museum.  First, for breakfast, we stopped by The Five-Point Cafe as suggested by the Layover & Anthony Bourdain.  I obviously super-stalked the menu and decided we had to go here.  I mean, they have a “breakfast happy hour”… how could it be bad?  Boy was I WRONG!  BOO Anthony!  Boo!  Here’s the story:

We had an incredibly disappointing meal at Five-Point Cafe.  The service was just horrible.  I’m always the type of person to be super-sweet to servers, always understand, rarely complain, etc.  The first bad sign was how long we had to wait for our food.  It was maybe about twenty minutes before I started looking around for our food.  I noticed a few plates up by the kitchen window just sitting there waiting to be delivered to their tables.  Ten minutes passed.  They were still there.  Praying those plates weren’t ours, I asked another server (ours was nowhere to be found) to check on our orders.  They weren’t ours.  Whew!  Another ten minutes passed before our food came out (it’s now been about 40 minutes since we ordered BREAKFAST… this should not take that long).  I had ordered one of their famous Benedicts, the “Californian” with avocado and grilled tomato.  I was STARVING at this point and could not wait to dig in.  It looked delish.  I cut into my benny only to see no runny egg.  Whatttt?  My dish had been sitting so long that the egg turned hard… a hard boiled egg smothered in hollandaise.  I’m sorry, but this is just UNACCEPTABLE for a Benny, right?!  I had to flag down our server only to have her roll her eyes at me.  Great.  They brought out another dish for me 10 minutes later, having only removed the hard eggs and replaced with runny eggs and MORE hollandaise sauce.  Gross.  It was covered to the point where I couldn’t taste any of the food except the sauce.  Dave’s Corned Beef Hash (his version of my benedict… the “I don’t care about calories” breakfast-go-to) was served to him cold, which at this point was the least of our worries.  BOO!  What a disappointment.

What I thought would be a delicious benedict from 5-Point Cafe...

What I thought would be a delicious benedict from 5-Point Cafe…

Ended up disgusting.  I couldn't eat anything under all of that gloopy sauce.

Ended up disgusting. I couldn’t eat anything under all of that gloopy sauce.

Ready for a GOOD TIME after our terrible breakfast, we headed over to the EMP Museum of Music, Sci-Fi, and Pop-Culture.  This wasn’t only the coolest looking building ever… it was the coolest museum ever.  We absolutely loved it.

Photo Cred: Journeysinlightphotoblog.com

The EMP Museum is one funky building!              Photo Cred: Journeysinlightphotoblog.com

They had exhibits about Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana, Sci-Fi movies and TV, Video Games, Fantasy, Horror Movies, and even an entire area where you could play around with music.  Dave was the happiest person ever being able to go into a sound proof room and play the drums for the first time in years.  We also got to try out sound mixing too.  This place isn’t just for kids, it’s for big kids like us!

Center of the EMP Museum... so cool

Center of the EMP Museum… so cool

Dave's replaced King Geoffrey in the Game of Thrones in the fantasy section of the EMP Museum.

Dave’s replaced King Geoffrey in the Game of Thrones in the fantasy section of the EMP Museum.

Caught in the reflection of the funky EMP Museum building

Caught in the reflection of the funky EMP Museum building

My favorite picture of them all... the reflection of the space needle outside the EMP Museum

My favorite picture of them all… the reflection of the space needle outside the EMP Museum

We stopped by a coffee shop for a pick-me-up and went back to the Space Needle.  Our train at 6pm took us to Vancouver to visit with Dave’s family for a few days.  I could not believe how much sightseeing we got done in just over 24 hours!

Our 3-Day, 3-Night visit to Vancouver was amazing.  I have lots to tell you and tons of pictures to share of our amazing food adventure… so that will have to wait until later.  We arrived back in Seattle for one last day on Tuesday morning.

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After checking into our hotel, we took a nice long walk through the city, bringing us back to the Pike Place Market again.  This time around, we were able to buy some souvenirs and iced coffees at the very first Starbucks!  I was one happy, perfectly caffeinated girl.  We satisfied our hunger and oyster craving at Emmett Watson’s Oyster Bar which was a tiny little hole in the wall place near the market.  Oysters were slurped and a super-garlicky salmon soup was shared.  Yum.

Watson's Oyster Bar menus are printed on brown paper bags.  Love.

Watson’s Oyster Bar menus are printed on brown paper bags. Love.

Amazing soup at the Oyster Bar!

Amazing soup at the Oyster Bar!

Happy to be in the very first Starbucks.

Happy to be in the very first Starbucks.

First Starbucks Store

First Starbucks Store

Our last dinner in Seattle ended up bringing us back to 1000 Spirits (why not?!) for some more drinks and grub.  Dave and I are absolutely going to miss this place!

I didn’t get my normal “OMG I want to move here” feelings when we were leaving Seattle.  Maybe it’s because I’m just loving our new place in Philly?  Or maybe it’s because we had a few days in Vancouver (the most beautiful city on earth) sandwiched in the middle?  Regardless, I had such an amazing trip and would love to visit again!  Who’s with me?

I woke up on the plane to this unbelievable view of Mt. Rainier... wow!

I woke up on the plane to this unbelievable view of Mt. Rainier… wow!

Israel Trip Part 1: Negev & The South

In an effort to just BEGIN somewhere, today I’m going to show you Part 1 of my trip to Israel in March of 2011.  WTF, Beth… that was so long ago… right?!  I know.  I have been waiting for the perfect opportunity to start this off, and today is the day.  In just a few hours, I’ll be reunited with some of my good friends from our trip… my “Taglit Family”.  I cannot wait to see them!

For some of you, a trip to Israel might sound like a crazy, crazy thing.  1.  How did I afford that?  2.  How did I go with a group? and 3.  Why Israel?

Just a brief background:  One of the many great Jewish organizations is called Birthright Israel or Taglit.  They believe that every young Jewish person should have the opportunity to visit and experience Israel in order to build a Jewish Identity (answer #3).  The organization provides young adults ages 18-27 with a FREE trip to Israel (answer #1), where they can experience the country for 10 days along with a group of peers as well as Israeli peers (answer #2).  How awesome is that?  Did I answer your questions?  

Throughout each post about Israel, I’ll try to stop and explain some words, traditions, or some other confusing things as best I can.  Don’t be offended that I’m going to link you to Wikipedia.  Let’s not pretend we don’t all go there first. :)  And… post a comment if you have any questions!

 

I took my birthright trip to Israel with my boyfriend Dave.  We sat together on the direct flight, and 13 hours later we were in Tel Aviv, ready for our journey.  Our group thus far included about 40 21-27 year olds, plus two staff members, one Israeli Tour Guide, and one Israeli Soldier.  Our first two days in Israel were spent in the South part of the country, the Negev Desert.  Click here for an awesome Israel Map.

A little geography lesson for you: In this post, we are in the Negev in the South, and nearby the Gaza Strip in the West corner of the country.

We arrived at the Kibbutz* and had a buffet-style Israeli dinner.  I remember eating Schnitzel and a ton of Hummus.  MMM.  After dinner, our two staff members initiated a few ice-breaker games, and then let us go to the Pub on the Kibbutz, for some “after activities … but don’t get drunk” drinks.  The empty bar turned into a dance party not too long after- I guess this is when I realized this group of people was really something special :)

 

After a really fun night (and blowing out all 3 of our hair straighteners, warning: frizzy hair ahead!), the next morning (Day#2) we walked around the Kibbutz and learned all about the Kibbutz Farming and Lifestyle.  Our guide for the day took us to the house of mud he and his wife are building, in order to further “live off the land”.  A few from the group got to literally get their feet dirty and make mud bricks for the house.

Ready to roll on Day #2! My roomies and I: I would become friends with the two shortest people on the trip causing me to crouch down in EVERY picture! They both speak Russian too! :)

Kat used her feet to mix the straw and mud together and formed it into a brick. This is how the Mud House is being built!

The mud house has running water, a microwave, and some pretty used glass bottles as decor.

After the “Mud House”, we got on the bus and drove to a farm that is part of the Kibbutz where they grow potatoes and carrots.  Highlight of my trip:  Eating carrots right out of the sand they were growing in.  It doesn’t get more fresh than that!

Next on the agenda (and get used to that word “Next”… Birthright really jam-packs your days on the trip so we do A LOT every day!) was the Gaza Lookout / Memorial.  Each item on the columns here leading up to the lookout were taken from the homemade rockets that are launched into the area from the Gaza Strip*.  From the lookout at this memorial, you can see Gaza in the distance.  It was near this area that Gilad Shalit* was kidnapped out of the IDF by Hamas.  It was amazing how close we were but still I never felt unsafe. In fact, Dave and I believe that we felt safer in Israel than we do in some of our own cities in the US.

The city you can see way in the distance is Gaza.

Following our stop at the Lookout, we took a small nature walk.  We stopped along the way to say the “Shema” (a prayer you do the first time you do… anything really) and sip on some wine.  Back on the bus!

Eli and Dave lead the Shema Prayer for the group on our nature walk

Next up was a stop at Sderot.  Sderot is a small town literally right next to the Gaza Strip.  I’m glad I didn’t know we were going here until we were here.  On our exit of the bus, our staff members told us casually “hey if you hear sirens, just do what everyone else is doing”.  Later, we find out this means:  “You’re so close to the Gaza Strip in this town, that you literally have less than 30 seconds to find shelter when the guards see rockets coming our way.”  Wow.  Visiting Sderot was my personal wake-up-call as to how life in Israel sometimes has to be.  I could not believe people live this way.  Schools with no windows facing the strip, bomb shelters turned into playgrounds, graffiti artists trying to spruce up the shelters on the streets… it all just left me in shock.

From top to bottom: 1. The police station in Sderot saves all of the rockets that are launched into the area from Gaza. They are tagged and marked. This wall of used rockets covered the entire back of the building. 2. One of the bomb shelter bus stops that local artists have painted. 3. This is an example of the damages that can incur from the homemade rocket bombs coming in from Gaza.

We went to lunch here where I had my first Shawarma*.  I wasn’t writing this blog yet, but as you can see, I was totally already a blogger at heart- documenting many of our great eats of Israel.  We also visited a bakery… mmm!

Tables and tables of fresh Israeli Hamentashen!

Our last stop was to a playground where we played some more ice breaker games and took some seriously awesome group pictures.  While we were having our fun, we were snapped back to reality when we found out that the playground we were on was actually a bomb shelter.  It’s moments like this that make you realize how truly lucky we are in our lives at home.

Outside and inside the playground bomb shelter

All of us

 

Believe it or not, we’re at the end of Part 1 of our trip to Israel!  The night of Day #2 we went to bed early to prepare ourselves for the busiest day ever of our trip.  I can’t wait to tell you about it!

 

***

Kibbutz:  A community or gathering of people who live and work together, traditionally based around a farm.  

The Gaza Strip:  This area to the West of Israel is run by the militant group Hamas and has a long history of violence with Israel.  Read here for more.  

Gilad Shalit:  An amazing story we got to see unfold.  When we arrived in Israel, Gilad had been held captive by Hamas for just under five years.  We learned about his abduction at the Gaza Lookout and several other times during our trip.  Less than a year after we left Israel, Gilad Shalit was released back to Israel.  This was a huge triumph for the people of Israel.  Read here!.

Shawarma:  A sandwich similar to a Gyro- sliced slow-cooked chicken from a rotating spit served as a wrap/sandwich with TONS of toppings, hummus, and hot sauce.  YUM!  This obviously deserved it’s own explanation.  You’ll be hearing a lot about this.

***

Vancouver, BC

“Vancouver?  Like in Canada?”

 
I remember one of our first conversations going something like that.  Dave’s father’s entire family is from Vancouver, and yes, the Vancouver in Canada.  At first, it sounded so foreign, I couldn’t believe he was actually CANADIAN?!  Weird.  I pretty much didn’t know anything about Vancouver either… what the weather’s like, what type of people live there, what they eat, what the scenery is… I had no clue.  
Just 2 months before our 2-Year Anniversary, Dave and I went on a vacation to Vancouver.  We had a couple of things on our agenda:  
 
1.  Visit Family & Grandpa Harry 
2.  See Vancouver  
3.  White Water Rafting 
4.  Peak 2 Peak Gondola at Whistler
5.  See Olympic Stuff 
6.  Eat Chinese Food
7.  Eat Fish & Chips
 
1.  Visit Family and Grandpa Harry.  
Dave’s Grandpa Harry sadly has passed away since we visited.  He was a truly amazing man who literally went from having nothing and living in a foreign country… to owning his own business, serving in WW2, and raising a wonderful family.  I am so happy and lucky to have met him and be able to spend time with him.  Dave’s two aunts are still living in Vancouver along with one of his cousins who have four kids.  We spent much of our time in Vancouver visiting with them.  We even got to have a Shabbat Dinner with them, which was really special.

Here’s Grandpa Harry on the left, and then a few pictures we took with Dave’s Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Ken

  2.  Vancouver.  I can’t believe I didn’t know about this place in my pre-Dave life.  It is honestly the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen.  Vancouver is surrounded by the beach to one side and mountains to the other.  It is so gorgeous.  Most of the year, it is rainy… almost similar to the reputation of Seattle.  However, in the summer or when the sun is out, it is just amazing!  We had almost perfect weather the entire time we visited.  

What a gorgeous city! … laughing at an actual Canadian Goose!

 
3.  White Water Rafting.  I had never been before and had no idea what to expect… but I was SCARED.  OMG!  About halfway through our trip, we rented a car and drove North up the Sea-to-Sky Highway towards Whistler.  The trip down the Elaho River was so much fun.  I remember the BEST part about it was the part i FEARED the most… being out of the boat and in the river!  Our guide let us jump out during a class 1 rapid and float along with the boat.  The water was SO cold it literally took my breath away.  The most surprising part (besides the fact that I didn’t die during this and that I loved it) was the water:  it was the most amazing, fresh water I’ve ever had in my life.  The water looked just like “Glacier Freeze” Gaterade flavor… and I could not stop keeping my mouth wide open and drinking some.  

Such a beautiful drive!

We got to see some gorgeous viewpoints

We found these train tracks just before the meeting spot for rafting…

 

Look at that water!!

Along the way to rafting, there were tons of “Viewpoint” signs and little stop offs for photo ops.  We had left super early so we were able to stop at EVERY one to take some pretty pictures and explore.  
 
4.  Peak-to-Peak Gondola Ride in Whistler.  From our rafting excursion, Dave and I drove up to Whistler.  We stopped by one of the sites of the Olympic events then checked into our hotel, the Crystal Lodge.  The whole area of Whistler is adorable, with tons of cute ski shops and hotels.  We ate a pretty fancy dinner that night then went out to a bar.  The next day we took the Peak-to-Peak Gondola Ride from Blackcomb Mountain to Whistler Mountain.  We then took a ski lift up even higher, to then climb up more to reach the most unbelievable view ever.  I am a little bit afraid of heights, so it was really scary but so worth it!

… we though that this was as high as we were gonna go!

… this was alllll the way on the top!

5.  See Olympic Stuff.  Not only were we able to see some of the Olympic areas in Whistler, but we got to visit so many of the Olympic Statue signs and also the monument from the Opening Lighting Ceremony (you remember it… the with Steve Nash’s side not working?).  It was really awesome though, and it was only a few months after so we were still in the Olympic spirit!
 
6.  One of the most talked-about parts of Vancouver (from Dave’s stories) is how they have the best Chinese food ever.  Vancouver’s population is ONE-FIFTH Asian (thank you BBC) so I had some pretty high expectations for the Chinese food.  The area of town we were staying in, where Grandpa Harry lives (Oakridge, directly South of the center city) didn’t have anything open late.  Every time we tried to get some Chinese take-out… they were all closed!  One of the nights, we went on a mission to find one.  We found a place that looked open and walked in…  We walked in on a Chinese Wedding… during the beginning of a toast!!!!!!!!!!!!  We were mortified but ran out laughing hysterically.  Everyone turned around and looked at us.  Just like what would happen in a movie.
Dave’s Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Ken solved our problem and took us to a pretty delicious Chinese place the night after.  Of course, this was all pre-blogging so I didn’t snap a picture of every piece of food we ate. :(  However, it was really tasty and  a much higher quality than the stuff we eat here.
 
7.  Eat Fish & Chips.  I had been hearing about how amazing the Fish and Chips were in Vancouver since I met Dave’s Dad.  On one of our walks, we discovered what we believe (and every top fish/chips list believe too) to be the BEST Fish and Chips in Vancouver, and what is totally on our “Best Thing I Ever Ate” list:  Go Fish.  Go Fish is a really tiny little shack of a place where you order, then eat your food outside along the water on picnic tables.  I could seriously rave about this place and what we ate for hours.

First Fish and Chips…

… the BEST Fish and Chips @ Go Fish! YUMMMM

Dave is actually in Vancouver right now (FYI in case you haven’t been paying attention!) and he happened to JUST call me about five minutes ago to tell me he ate lunch at Go Fish.  He said, “Don’t mind me but I have to GLOAT for a minute because you’re going to be SO JEALOUS.  I just had the best meal EVER”.  I am super jealous.  YUMMMMMMM!

 
We could have ended our trip at this point… with these 7 points accomplished.  What a great trip would that have been?  Now, of course I don’t have to tell you that vacations, adventures, and well… life… isn’t just about what you have planned.  It’s all about the surprises that come up along the way… 
 
 
So, besides the huge surprise of Vancouver being the BEST city ever… the first surprise I came across during our trip was Kernel’s Popcorn.  We discovered Kernel’s walking through the mall in Oakridge on our first day there.  It’s just a little popcorn stand in the middle of the mall, but it’s the best!  They start with low-fat popcorn instead of regular buttery stuff most places use.  They toss it with some amazing seasonings!  We went back at least twice during the time we were there, and even bought a seasoning for home.  A few of the nights we spent in our room reading books and eating Kernel’s Popcorn.  MMM!
 
How could I almost forget to tell you about JapaDog?  JapaDog is exactly what it sounds like:  Japanese influenced hot dogs.  Dave and I came across this place not too long after we ate lunch, and we still had to try it out.  Check out the menu, how could we resist?  I think we got the Terimayo which is their signature dog.  It was REALLY good.  They also have a few different types of asian-inspired sauces to top the dog.  YUM!  For those of you who are dying to try this, they just opened up their first location out of Canada, right next to NYU.

Japadog, I wish there was one in Philly!

Granville Island was probably my favorite section of Vancouver.  It is a small part of town where the Granville Market (farmers market), artists, and shopping are.  The Market was one of my favorite stops on our trip.  Duh.  

gorgeous berries

A totally different area that I loved was Steveston.  Steveston is a fishing town in Richmond, southwest of Vancouver.  We got to visit Steveston as apart of our day with Dave’s Aunt Sharon and Uncle Sol who (at the time) lived in Richmond.  Steveston was pretty amazing.  We had some really really good food on the pier, and walked around to all of the boats who sell FRESH fish right off of the boat.  I have never experienced anything like this before, it is really cool.  We also got to take a tour of the Cannery, where they used to can salmon.  I really liked this part too!  We took a gorgeous walk from Steveston to Sharon and Sol’s house who made us an awesome dinner:  the FRESHEST salmon I’ve had in my life, bought that day from Steveston.  YUM!

Get ‘cha fresh fish!!!

Hangin’ out at the cannery

Scenes from our walk from Steveston to Sharon’s house… gorgeous trail along the beach! (my dream house too!)

One of the “things to do” in Vancouver is to go on the Capilano Suspension Bridge.  Here’s the trick:  it would have cost us $50 to cross the bridge, so we went to the Lynn Valley Suspension Bridge instead.  Lynn Valley’s bridge isn’t as long, or maybe isn’t as breathtaking as Capilano, but it’s FREE!  We spent a few hours in this area and took an awesome hike through the forest and the river.  I highly recommend this hike to anyone visiting Vancouver!

Another surprise activity was our trip to Horseshoe Bay.  Horseshoe Bay wasn’t very far from Lynn Valley so we made the trek out there after our hike.  We ate these amazing salmon wraps at a restaurant with seating overlooking the bay, and rented a boat! I was too nervous to drive the boat, so I made Dave do it for most of the time.  It was so beautiful and peaceful out there.  We even saw seals sunbathing on one of the rocks in the middle.  

had to represent PSU!

Seals!

 
TWICE during our trip, I let Dave take me to see the Canucks (Vancouver’s hockey team) practice.  Of course, this wasn’t the best part of my trip, but it was really cool to be there.  We also got to meet a few of the players when they were done!
Wreck Beach was one of our last stops on the tour of Vancouver.  Located west of the city and right in the middle of everything UBC (University of British Columbia), Wreck Beach is a “clothing-optional” park.  Now I’m reminded we’re in Canada, not the US! We of course… chose to wear our clothes.  You’d think this was a relaxing part of our trip, but you have to climb down (and then up!) 450 stairs just to get there!  OMG!
 
If the fabulous fresh fish and amazing food wasn’t enough to convince you to go visit here sometime, I’m sure the pictures did!  I love love love Vancouver, and hope that I’ll be able to visit there again someday soon!  
 
 
 
 

NYC for BBB

I finally had some time to sit down and tell you all about the awesome time Dave and I had in NYC a few weeks ago with some of our “Taglit Family”.  These are some of the amazing people we became friends with on our trip toIsrael.  We got to spend the entire weekend together, eating, drinking, laughing, and of course (the reason for our get together) dancing to the Israeli band Balkan Beat Box. 

Okay, I think I’m not really painting a clear picture of our weekend by pairing “eating” with lots of other things.  We ate EVERYTHING!  I think we actually ate something like seven meals on Saturday alone… ew?  MMM!  NYC is the best place to do it.  The eating extravaganza started once Dave and I arrived off of the bus around 3:30… starving.

We found the hotel we were staying at and soon after, pizza place nearby.  Waldy’s Wood Fired Pizza is a small but interesting pizza place, serving thin crust artisan pizzas with “Free Anchovies” and even a DIY fresh herb garden.  I loved that!  We split a small pizza with Pepperoni, Broccoli Rabe & Tomatoes.  The crust was cracker-thin and the pizza really hit the spot!

The menu at Waldy's

Loved the herb garden! Such a nice touch

Dave waiting patiently for me to stop taking pictures!

Our outstanding pizza... yum!

Next on the agenda was to meet up at our hotel for a bit, then head out to dinner nearby the concert venue.  There were seven of us total (Dave, another Dave, Eli, Donny, Nicole, Lauren, and myself) and Stand 4 Burgers was kind enough to accommodate us with one big table so we could sit together.  We didn’t even have to wait!  After noshing on some hand-cut fries, sweet potato fries, and mac and cheese, most of us ordered the “Hell Burger”, complete with wasabi, caramelized onions, Thai chilies & sweet chili sauce.  The burger itself was much better than your average burger but I was left wishing mine was hotter!

Fun to order mac and cheese :)

Sweet Po Fries were the best. So was the dipping sauce.

Hell Burger... doesn't look very hell-like on the outside, but wait until you see the middle!

Hell Burger!!!!! And Oh yes... they're all served with fried pickles

A single-patty "Bold Burger"... brioche, applewood smoked bacon, sautéed onions, american & cheddar cheese, pickle, tomato, chipotle sauce, fried egg

Donny's Mushroom Burger... Beef, sliced portobello, caramelized onions, lettuce, porcini sauce. The Porcini sauce was the best part of the entire meal. Heavenly.

After Stand 4, we headed on to our next destination, Eli’s parents house.  We had a few cocktails and chatted with his parents who I LOVED!  They are intelligent, funny, and so easy to talk to.  Now I see where Eli gets it from.  We had a toast on the roof of their place, overlooking the New York skyline.  Gorgeous.

AMAZING view!

Dave, Donny, Eli, and my Dave (Dahv)

Lauren and I enjoying the view

This happens to be the first time we're in NYC together and it didn't rain!

The apex of the night, our Balkan Beat Box concert was soon after, and it rocked.  They are pretty awesome.

Following the show, we hung out for a bit at a Hookah Bar & Lounge where we had some appetizers to munch on.  We also split a Mint-Choco Hookah… a flavor I’ve never had before… it was so good!  Very refreshing.  (the other) Dave and I had humongous cappuccinos, and if you’re interested, this is overpriced coffee drink #2 for me in NYC so far.

Hookah Bar

MMM giant caps

We split up, Donny, Dave and I headed back with a slice of pizza, and retired for the night.  Both boys were sleeping by the time I came out of the bathroom from brushing my teeth.  LOL.

Saturday couldn’t have been a more beautiful day.  Blue skies, warm temp, no wind… it was perfect for us to wonder the city.  Dave, Donny, and I spent the morning together.

perfect weather for a nice walk in the city

Our first stop… I felt like I died and went to heaven.  Have you ever heard of Mario Batali’s Eataly?  It is a HUGE Italian grocery store located at 200 5th Ave.

I. Love. This. Picture.

There are places to shop, drink wine, take cooking lessons, and of course eat.  They sell everything from fresh baked bread, meats, cheeses, pastries, pastas, and even homemade mozzarella… wow!  We spent about a half hour or so browsing before we decided on getting a sandwich for breakfast.  I felt like we were in Italy!  It was to die for.  MMM!

Eataly, the cheese section

homemade mozzarella

fresh meat!

Prosciutto, Sharp Prov., and the crustiest bread ever

We had a gorgeous walk through a park (during a playground naming ceremony… very exciting), and through the city which on accident brought us to a delicious Macaron and Coffee shop.  If you missed out on my first Macaron in NYC experience, you should now know how much I LOVE them!

Walking right to it by accident, we tried Maison du Macaron on West 23rd St.  I bought a box to go and the three of us had (#4) a coffee and a few Macarons to go along with it.  The Vanilla and the Caramel are two of my favorite flavors.  I also purchased Passion Fruit, Pistachio, Chocolate, Chocolate-Mango, Raspberry, Apricot-Champagne, and a few other interesting flavors.  MMM!  These Macarons (compared to those from Laduree) had a little more filling, making them my favorite so far.

I want them all!!!

So... so... yummy.

As if we didn’t shove our faces with enough food before lunch… AGAIN, we happened to stumble upon another NYC foodie staple:  Doughnut Plant.  OMG!  I was torn… I really shouldn’t eat a doughnut… but there was no line… and it’s just so famous!  Of course my foodie side won out and the three of us split a doughnut.  We went with the Pineapple flavor of the yeast variety (vs. getting a Cake or filled doughnut).  The cake was soft and spongy, and the glaze so sweet and packed with pineapple flavor.  YUM.

I loved the stuffed doughnut decor at The Doughnut Plant

Pineapple Doughnut mmm

Our next stop was to meet up with everyone else at the Museum of Natural History.  I had never been there, and we had so much fun!  You’re never too old to learn!

A few hours later, it was time for lunch.  ALL of us got gyros from the food cart outside of the museum.  We watched the guy make it fresh… mmm… it was so good!  Gotta love street meat.

extra hot sauce, please!

love

We had a few hours off, so we walked around, and checked into our new hotel (coffee #6).  The hotel had a beautiful view of the city.  After some much needed relaxation, the rest of the group met Dave, Lauren, and I at the hotel to listen to music and have a few drinks.

Donny’s brother had an in at Kibo, a modern Japanese and Sushi restaurant in the Village where Lindsey Lohan recently partied at making it impossible to get in.  Kibo was a pretty big restaurant, especially forNew York, but they were able to accommodate our party of 8 on time, which is a plus.

We ordered a punch bowl and some sake along with Edamame and Shishito Peppers for starters.  I had to try the Hamachi (Yellowtail) w/ Green Chile.  This is my favorite type of sashimi!  Kibo serves Robata, like what Dave and I had for V-Day at Pod… it is skewered meat or veggies over a 1000 degree open flame, cooked to perfection.  The table ordered the Branzino, Chicken Breast, Asparagus, and Eggplant Robata.  The chicken was to die for.  It was so juicy and the sauce was sweet and savory, my favorite combination.

These were sweet and crunchy!

The Daves and Lauren at dinner

Robby and Donny

Blue Steel! Eli and Nicole

huge punch bowl

delish hamachi

Chicken Robata w/ Honey Soy

eggplant robata w/ panko, miso mustard, togarashi

Branzino Robata w/ Ginger & Japanese Tartar

Lauren and I split the Spicy Pork Ramen w/ handmade noodles.  It was a little salty (but I love salty!!) but the broth was packed with flavor and the noodles were very fresh.  Another dish to mention was Dave’s Wok Seared Spicy Beef Udon.

Soupy ramen... mmmmmmmmm!

Spicy Beef Udon

After filling our bellies (again), we headed over to another Hookah Bar.  It was a very… interesting crowd and after being relocated a few times, we set up shop with our Coconut Hookah right next to the DJ!  The bar was pretty cool, the DJ played great dance music and they even had a bongo player.  I never thought I’d hear Deadmau5 music with a live bongo before!  Love it!

We were out until it was time to turn the clocks forward an hour, which it was then time for some drunk food (another gyro) and crashing back at the hotel.

Breakfast was good  but not memorable (coffee #7), then we spent the last couple hours together walking towards Times Square… getting more coffee (#8) … then finally our friends dropped us off at the bus (where I got to spend 3 hours finishing Book 2 of Hunger Games!!!!!!!!!!).

What a great weekend with some amazing food and even more amazing people!

THON 2012

As expected, this past weekend at Penn State was one I’ll never forget.  My best friend Julie and I packed up our car on Friday morning and took the 3 hour drive up to State College to witness this year’s THON.  THON is the world’s largest student-run philanthropy, raising money for the Four Diamonds Fund which supports families affected by childhood cancer.

Every year I was a student at Penn State, I was involved with THON.  My first two years, I participated in many fundraising events with my sorority, including “canning” on the street, collecting every penny we could “FTK” (for the kids).  My last two years as a student, I was involved in THON at work.  We made phone calls day and and day out during the weekend of THON… so much so that I lost my voice both years I did it!  I also had the opportunity those years to keep my friends who were dancing company on the floor, experiencing the event in a whole new light.

This year, Julie, my sister Melissa and I had the most unbelievable experience at THON.  Besides having so much fun together during the weekend, we were able to see both the beginning AND the end of THON.  The end of the event, is notorious for being the most intense, sad, happy, and fun four hours of a Penn State student’s college experience.  Having never been able to make it to the event for the end, we were determined to get there this year.

Something you have to know about THON, is that the dancers are not allowed to sit at all during the 46 hours.  To be fair and show respect to the dancers, no one in the stands is allowed to sit either.  We arrived to the Bryce Jordan Center on Sunday morning at 7am… much earlier than the last 4 hours of THON in order to snag a few of the coveted “seats” left in the stands for the main event.  I don’t know how the dancers do it because after standing for 9.5 hours we were absolutely exhausted.  It was worth every minute.

We got to see the line dance 9 times… which I still couldn’t reenact it for you.  It was so complicated this year!  We got to hear Jay Paterno speak to the crowd for the first THON event since his father, our coach’s death just last month.  We then got to hear “family hour”, stories of families who have been helped and their children cured of cancer thanks to the Four Diamonds Fund and THON.  Their stories were truly inspiring and reminded everyone just what they were there for.  After lots of hugging and crying… a local cover band took the stage for the final hour and a half.  They played fun dance music and the ENTIRE crowd and all of the dancers picked up their energy as if it was Friday and they had just arrived.

After the band and a few THON kids sang and danced to LMFAO, it was time to announce the totals.  In their typical dramatic fashion, they raised up cards to reveal the record-breaking total of $10,686,924.83 raised.  It was an unbelievable $1.1 million dollars more than last year’s record and the crowd just went wild.  It is really something to be proud of, especially in a time where the entire country turned their backs on the students at Penn State.  They were able to rise above and show the world what they’re WE’RE all about.

THON 2012 Total, photo courtesy of Onward State

I couldn’t be more proud to be a Penn Stater as I was this weekend.

Julie, me, and Mellie during the final hours of THON

The entire BJC throwin' up their "diamonds" for the Four Diamonds Fund

Disney World, 2012

…and I use 2012 in this post because I hope to go back REALLY soon!!!

It’s so hard to describe the feeling you get when you are in Disney World.  It is simply magical.  There’s a reason why Disney has such an amazing reputation of making dreams come true… because it’s reality.

Just last week, I had the (hopefully not once-in-a-lifetime… but you get the point) opportunity to take two days off of work and head down to Orlando with my Mom.  The timing couldn’t have been more perfect.  A little something I have not mentioned much about yet is that my Mom, who I cook with almost every night… happens to own a CHOCOLATE STORE!!!  …More on that some other time.  What’s important in THIS story though is that she just finished up her busy Christmas season and couldn’t have been more ready for a much deserved vacation!

The real reason for our trip was thanks to our cousins!  My cousin Alex turned thirteen this past Sunday and was having her bat mitzvah the day before.  We couldn’t have been happier to celebrate with them and spend some time there, as we rarely get to see this side of my family.

We flew down PHL > MCO Wednesday night after work, rented a car, and drove to our Holiday Inn right outside of Orlando.  We booked both the hotel and the car through Southwest, snagging amazing deals for each.  The car, a mid-size Nissan Versa, was rented Wed night – Sun afternoon, for … are you ready … $63.23 total!  I was amazed.  I highly recommend this hotel to anyone without young kids traveling to Disney on a budget.  The Disney Parks were only about a 5-7 minute drive, or a7:50am FREE shuttle-ride away.  The rooms were clean and spacious.  I really couldn’t ask for more booking a hotel for Disney at just under $100 / night.  It’s hard to get a hotel for that cheap ANYWHERE these days.

Our first day we decided to go all out, buying a “Park Hopper” ticket to Disney which allowed us to hop from park to park as many times as we wished.  And hop we did!

We started with Disney’s newest park, Animal Kingdom.  I decided the first thing we had to do was face our fears of our semi-traumatic experience we had on the “Dinosaur” ride the last time we visited (where a Jeep full of my entire family got stuck in the dark on the part of the ride where all the dinosaurs come out… lol).  The ride was great, but the Dinosaur had the last laugh again- my Mom lost her sunglasses on a sharp turn!  Whoops!  After stopping at our first souvenir store to pick up some new sunnies, we were ready for more.  We met Pluto and Goofy, laughed in the Bug’s Life 3D show, and headed over to the Safari.  I’ve been on the Safari at Six Flags before but this one was much better!  Our guide was funny but really knowledgeable and there were so many animals.  We even were able to approach a huge “daddy” Rhino only a few feet away from our car.  Although this park is geared towards a younger crowd, I really love it.  It was the perfect start to our day.

Ready for Animal Kingdom... coffee and all

The center of Animal Kingdom, the Tree of Life

We even got to meet characters!! Goofy is so tall!

Next, we were off to Disney’s Hollywood Studios aka MGM.  If you didn’t get a chance to check out my post written from our lunch at the Brown Derby, you can check it out now!  We had a fabulous lunch and were back on track to ride the rides.  A classic ride, the “Backlot Tour” featured a Pearl-Harbor theme this time around… a personal favorite thanks to my teenage obsession with Josh Hartnett.  After Backlot, we made sure to stop at Toy Story, which was one of my favorites this year.  “Disney just has the best way of moving people,” we discussed several times throughout the trip… and the Toy Story ride was a great example.  The waiting rooms were decorated like a toybox with life-sized board games, dominoes, crayons, and any toy you could imagine!  This was our longest wait, which didn’t feel like it … and was totally worth it!

Outside Toy Story Ride in Hollywood Studios

Entertainment in line for Toy Story

Finally, it was time to head over to Epcot, one of the most iconic of all Disney World symbols… second to only the mouse ears themselves.  Sunset was the perfect time to snap a few pictures and head on into the ride INSIDE the globe.  It was calm but really awesome, with an interactive game in the last few minutes of the ride.  Soarin’ was also really impressive, which takes you on a hang-gliding simulator over different scenes of California.

Sunset was beautiful at Epcot

Dinner couldn’t come soon enough as we finished up our crazy jam-packed day of Disney World fun.  Mom chose an amazing restaurant for us, which any of you Full House fans out there will be sure to recognize:  The Coral Reef at Epcot… where the Tanner family dines on their trip to Disney (and DJ saw Steve’s face in a watermelon… a personal favorite).  The restaurant was just gorgeous, and lucky us, we got a table RIGHT in front of the 5.7 million gallon aquarium!  It was so cool!  They told us that the tank is so big they can fit the “Spaceship Earth” (Epcot Ball) in it with room to spare.

Amazing view!

Appetizer Sampler

Our meal was fantastic.  We each got a different type of Mojito… Cheers!  The appetizer sampler came next.  The crab cakes were good, but not amazing, and the shrimp were a great treat, something we’d never order at home.  The star of this plate however was the small sample of Creamy Lobster Soup served in a tiny little mug.  It was rich and flavorful and just the right amount too.

Mom ordered the “Seasonal Catch” which was a Sea Bass type fish (we forget now what type… it was delish that’s all that matters!) which was served on Roasted Mushroom Risotto with Bay Scallops, Celery Root Nage, and Parsley-Truffle Oil.  The flaky and tender fish sat atop the hearty risotto which was the perfect balance with the light, delicate sauce.

Mom's Fish

The Coconut-Lime Sauce caught my eye on the menu and I had to order the Grilled Mahi Mahi served with Rock Shrimp, Hearts of Palm, Jasmine Rice, Cilantro, and the star of the meal, a tart and creamy Coconut-Lime Sauce.  MMM!  Our dishes were so tasty that we didn’t mind eating them while being watched by some big fishies ourselves!

...and my fish! The flavor of the Jasmine Rice went perfectly with the sauce

Friday, we spent the morning and early afternoon in the MAGIC KINGDOM!  Cinderella’s Castle, here we come!!  It was just like we were both kids again.  We did every ride possible in Tomorrowland, INCLUDING Space Mountain!  My all time favorite.  After a few other rides, photo op’s, and souvenir shopping… it was time to leave Disney :(

Two Princesses in front of Cinderella's Castle

We were only “okay” with leaving Disney because it meant that we were going to see our family!  Everything involving the Bat Mitzvah was so well done and just GORGEOUS!  Lisa, the Mom of the Bat Mitzvah Girl did such an amazing job.  We celebrated a Shabbat Dinner Friday night together to start the festivities.  After a spectacular job by Alex in services both Friday and Saturday, it was time to party!  We had a blast catching up, dancing and taking silly pictures.

I loved these glowing purple-themed centerpieces on our dinner tables Friday night!

BEAUTIFUL Cake and Cupcakes!! The cake was SO yummy too!

The dancin' family making their spectacular entrance into the party!

<3 my fam

The rest of the weekend went by so fast and before we knew it, it was time to go home!  BOO!  After a stop at Joe’s Crab Shack and some shopping at the outlets, we dropped off the car and headed back to the airport.

We had such an amazing time together, it was hard to leave it all behind!  However, I am so happy we were able to pull off such a great vacation just the two of us… and really hope we could do it again sometime.

best Mom ever!!

PS… What’s your favorite Disney ride???????????

Just a little something to leave you with…